An international shame

Sydney nurse Alanna Maycock shared a New York stage with world leaders who were horrified by her account of the abuse she witnessed on Nauru.

Two-and-a-half years after she worked as a nurse consultant at Nauru Island,Sydney-based registered nurse Alanna Maycock has shared a stage with speakers such as Hilary Clinton and Justin Trudeau to tell the world about the shocking abuse she witnessed in Australia’s offshore detention centres.

Alanna spoke at the Women in the World Summit at New York’s Lincoln Centre in April on a panel called ‘Australia’s Shame’. 

She described arriving at Nauruand seeing “high-rise fences andbarbed wire and rows and rows of tents, tents that were mouldy”. She saw open shower blocks where women have to shower and wash with their babies behind “flimsy fabric curtains” in front of male guards.

During her five days on the island, detainees told Alanna horrific tales of abuse. She told the New York audience about the Forgotten Children Report, which found that “every two days there is assault on a child in offshore detention, and every thirteen days there’s a sexual assault, the majority involving children”.

An audience of 4,000 in the Lincoln Centre, and an even larger audience watching the summit televised live across America, heard Alanna’s message. On the panel with her was Viktoria Vibhakar, a former aid worker with Save the Children, and the Australian human rights lawyer Jennifer Robinson.

Nauru is “the Guantanamo of the Pacific”

Describing Nauru as the “Guantanamo of the Pacific”, Robinson said: “In Australia we are not locking up alleged terrorists, we are locking up people who are fleeing persecution and seeking our protection.”

Acknowledging that Australian public opinion is still largely supportive of offshore detention centres, Alanna pointed to the “complete… shroud of secrecy over this situation”. With laws gagging detention centre workers from speaking out, whistleblowers such as Alanna her colleague, paediatrician David Isaacs, who visited Nauru with her, are rare and brave exceptions.

“The problem with the Border Force Act is if you uphold your duty of care to your patients, you break the law,” she said.

The importance of Alanna’s session in New York was highlighted by the fact that the organisers – leading journalist and publisher Tina Brown and sponsors The New York Times – scheduled her to talk between sessions by Clinton and the First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon. 

Earlier that morning Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke, repeating his now well-known words: “To those fleeing persecution, terror and war, Canadians welcome you, regardless of your faith.”

Alanna says she was horrified by the contrast between Australia’s approach to asylum seekers and that of other nations. “I wanted the ground to swallow me up. I was absolutely mortified. Many of those watching said to me ‘not even Donald locks up children indefinitely’.”

But the chance to speak to Nicola Sturgeon backstage was “an absolute inspiration” Alanna says. “She said to me: ‘You can’t do what is popular, you have to do what is right’.” Sturgeon has invited Alanna to visit the Scottish Parliament to discuss the issue when she next visits the UK.

The experience has given Alanna a new resolve to “do everything I can to advocate more [for those locked up in detention centres]. My conversations with these world leaders have given me a well-needed injection of enthusiasm.”

Alanna was also encouraged by the international media’s response to her session.

“Having the opportunity to take this to an international platform has given me the encouragement I need to keep pushing on with it. It becomes apparent when you take this issue to other nations that we are an international shame.”